Wave of ambition

Advocate, LIBBY BINGHAM, p.34 – 29 Nov 2014

A former butcher carves out a grand design to further enliven Devonport’s foreshore. LIBBY BINGHAM reports.
WHEN former butcher Leigh Murphy rode his bike past a slice of Devonport’s maritime history like many locals he thought it had great possibilities for a cafe on the Mersey River foreshore and kept peddling.
The old weatherboard building has become an easy target for vandals and has been empty for some time.
About 18 months ago, after holidaying in Munich where he saw hordes of folk on bicycles it inspired Murphy to come back and lease the landmark heritage-listed harbourmaster building and open that cafe he’d dreamt about on Devonport’s popular walking and cycling track.
Murphy also wanted to preserve some rich local history at the same time. “It’s important not to lose what we’ve got because it represents us and Devonport’s story,” he said.
The Mersey River is what makes the North-West’s biggest city different and special from others.
Murphy said he has read in a council-commissioned urban consultant’s report that Devonport suffers from not having a clear identity.
It was partly why Devonport struggled to get hundreds of tourists disembarking off the Spirit of Tasmania ferries to come into the city instead of turning left to head south or straight to Cradle Mountain.
“Devonport is a maritime city and we need to enhance that aspect for people to enjoy it and experience it,” Murphy said.
“Imagine if tourists came off the Spirits and can park and hop on the (trans-Mersey) Torquay ferry to come over here to a licenced cafe where they can hire bicycles and get a pass and a map directing to attractions such as the Bass Strait Maritime Centre, a redeveloped Tiagarra Tasmanian Aboriginal Cultural and Devil Interpretation Centre at the Bluff with live devils and a big devil structure, and the Don River Railway.”
Murphy, a Heston Blumenthal doppelganger, sits at an outside picnic table while he talks to ‘Scape. The sun is warm on his face and the river and its surrounds are active with everyday life happening.
Dogs of all shaps and sizes are walking their owners, kids fly by on bikes and a woman on rollerskates ambles past.
A painter has been working on covering the graffiti on the harbourmaster building that Murphy has just leased from Crown Land Services. He wants to buy it eventually.
Sadly, the operators of the historic trans-Mersey ferry have dry-docked the iconic little boat because it is no longer commercially viable after a government fare subsidy was removed.
Meanwhile, there is a battle still going on to get this part of Devonport’s unique maritime story back on the water.
Some may ask why the beloved ferry was not included in the $250 million Living City master plan that the Devonport City Council endorsed to reshape and reinvigorate the city.
The plan focuses more on the Mersey River.
The good news is the ferry operator has agreed to restart it again for 12 months and the council said it would help maintain the pontoon on the city side but it hinged on whether a local consortium decided to go ahead with plans to buy the pontoon for a rumoured $15,000.
It looks as if the pontoon has a couple of possible buyers looking at it. Murphy (and his silent investors) won’t say if he might like to buy the pontoon.
He said he supported the Living City plan for what it wanted to achieve but he was not a big fan of all the ideas contained in the plan.
“In some ways, it feels like they are trying to create something that we haven’t got and I don’t know that building a hotel and a (circular walkway over the Mersey River) to go nowhere is the answer for Devonport,” Murphy said.
“I think the Living City plan is more focused on bringing retail into Devonport.
“Part of the problem in Devonport is that we don’t understand what we’ve got here and we should enhance what we’ve got.
“I think we have got something iconic the tourists want.
“It’s right behind us and it’s 25 kilometres long and easily accessible and it’s a pathway leading to somewhere – which are some other experiences in Devonport.
“Where else in Australia can you disembark from a big ferry to catch a little ferry into the city and for less than $100 you might get six hours’ entertainment? And if you want to, you can end back here and catch the ferry out again.”
Murphy has planning approval and hopes to open his new cafe in January. “We don’t want to wait – we want to be the start of the Living City plan,” he said.
“People can come here and see how Devonport used to look while they enjoy Devonport today.”
MURPHY’S Harbourmaster Cafe will serve wine and produce from the region and showcase old photographs depicting Devonport’s waterfront.
It will have an area set aside for old fashioned games like hop scotch and quoits and fishing rods available to use.
A bit later the plan includes a pop-up fish and chippery on a boardwalk built as a stationary wooden boat structure over the river. Because of limited space inside the cafe, Murphy said he would bring a mobile commercial kitchen on-site to cater to special events.
He grins and says, “Try to imagine fire pots and Fijian fire dancers as the first thing that passengers on the Spirit ferries might see when they dock.
“We want to offer a first focus point into Devonport.”
The story of Devonport’s oldest public building has been told in newspaper clippings.
The harbourmaster building has survived many years of neglect and there have been several campaigns to save it.
“That’s why I want to preserve it for good,” Murphy says.
Built in 1882, the small timber building was the administration centre of the first marine authority in the district, set up under the Marine Act of 1867, known then as the Mersey Marine Board.
The Town Board, a forerunner of the present city council, met in the Marine Board building before the Town Hall was built.
“Not many people know the decision to join Torquay and Formby to form Devonport was made at a meeting in that building,” Murphy said. At one stage, the building was almost burned down after vandals set it alight.
In 1984, a new plan was devised to make the building a centrepoint of a Pioneer Mariners’ Park.
That project cost $30,000 and included restoration of the building, the regraded park and stone wall and new flagpoles.
In 2001, the building was listed on the Tasmanian Heritage Register.
Murphy said the Heritage Council had no issues with his cafe plans, which retained the historic facade.
Murphy and two silent investors are developing the foreshore cafe and fish and chip shop, and he has spoken to Devonport Deputy Mayor Annette Rockliff, as chairwoman of the Tiagarra working group, about a multi-million-dollar redevelopment proposal with his three investors to transform Tiagarra into an Aboriginal cultural experience and live devil park.
Murphy is working as a self-employed sub-contractor as he juggles his development ambitions.
His past jobs have been many and varied. “I call myself a journeyman,” he says.
After he completed his apprenticeship as a butcher he worked at Ashley Detention Centre as a youth worker.
He was an industrial organiser with the Community and Public Sector Union and at another stage was worked in human resources at a hospital and was a self-employed timber floor installer and sander.
The aspiring entrepreneur is married with two young sons.
“I want to keep my family in Devonport and this is how I want to do it by creating something that brings families together and everyone can enjoy,” he said.
“Don’t limit yourself by what you think you can’t do.”
Devonport Mayor Steve Martin said Murphy’s ideas showed merit.
He said the council encouraged and welcomed people with ideas to present them.

Caption: Leigh Murphy wants to provide the first focus point for passengers docking in Devonport on the Spirit of Tasmania ferries. Developer Leigh Murphy’s plans for the ex-harbourmaster building are only part of his ideas to help revitalise Devonport. An aerial view of the wharf in 1968. RIGHT: HMS Pyramis in 1911, calling into Devonport. Architecture student Declan Vertigan with his model of the revitalised ex-harbourmaster building on the banks of the Mersey. Ganynede, the tall ship in the Mersey River. All the historic pictures will be displayed in the new cafe. LEFT: The harbourmaster building has been vandalised many times over the years. It is now pristine. The cafe is on track to open in January, says co-owner Leigh Murphy.